Last April, at 22, I married my boyfriend in a secret 10-minute ceremony behind the Philadelphia Art Museum.
The bride wore H&M; the groom wore the Fair Isle sweater he’d had on when the bride scoped him out in the stacks of an Oxford University library a year before. The officiant was an anarchist ordained by an online church; she told us excitedly she’d use her $100 fee to reclaim her impounded car.
We were accompanied by two of my closest college friends and a couple that refused to leave the gazebo. Afterward we ate at a Yelp 4-star Italian restaurant, where the waiter hovered over our table to ensure my 20-year-old friend didn’t sneak a sip from the champagne bottle, and we split the bill evenly. I was still a month from graduation and had a German test at nine the next morning. We told our parents only after the fact.
I was an unlikely candidate for young marriage. In fact, as a self-righteous feminist and leftist, I am vehemently opposed to it. I don’t want girls to stunt their development, risk their educations, restrict their opportunities or settle for someone before they’ve grown into themselves. And I worry about the wedding Kool-Aid they’re being served in fairy tales and gossip rags.
When Miley Cyrus announced her engagement at 19, I wanted to cover the ears of every Hannah Montana super fan, mail them sacks of college brochures and secretly snap the legs off their Bride Barbies. I want to require bridal magazines be sold wrapped in brown paper and that Disney amend all its fairy tales to show Snow White et al carrying out long-distance Skype-assisted relationships with their various Prince Charmings while they pursue their masters or start their careers at nonprofits.
Actually, I’m not much of a fan of weddings and marriages at any age. I’m a devoted "Say Yes to the Dress" killjoy, frequently yelling at the festooned and glittered customers in sartorial outrage. I was once uninvited from a twentynothing's wedding when I tactlessly announced to the bride that I was too poor to buy her anything but a single juice glass from her extravagant Pottery Barn gift registry and that perhaps she should have waited to get hitched until she and her friends had graduated from college. I am on no one’s shortlist to be a bridesmaid.
But for all my outrage and back pew snickering, I’m married and 22 -- and deeply ashamed of it. I love my husband (that word still sticks on my tongue) dearly, but early marriage doesn’t fit with my carefully crafted self-image as a feminist, progressive, maybe future academic, and former prolific fuck buddy.
I wasn’t stumbling over myself to wear a meringue dress and feed my 200 closest cousins and friends chicken or salmon. I didn’t have marriage and housewife fantasies I pasted over the first willing and able-bodied man. I wasn’t pregnant or looking to be.
In fact, our marriage is largely a secret. I’m desperately afraid I’ll be lumped in with other child brides: chastity ball pledges, Mrs. degree recipients, aspiring housewives, shotgun wives and wedding attention seekers. I’m keenly self-righteous in my girl power. I have a college degree and no particular passion for gift registry small appliances (I’ll struggle on without a stand mixer and a wok, thank you very much).
I always thought I’d be someone’s beloved long-term girlfriend or civil partner; my sisters thought I’d be a well-read spinster. Instead, I’m a self-identified child bride.
I’m married to my boyfriend-husband-partner because of dizzy, wonderful things like love and compatibility and hard, practical things like immigration. He’s British, I’m American, and ours is a love story spun ahead to marriage for the sake of a visa.
In an alternate universe, one with looser immigration laws or where the American Revolution failed and the colonies didn’t take a course of extreme patriotism and barbecue, we wouldn’t have married so quickly. We’d live together for the next 10 years and when our families had finally resolved the West Yorkshire versus Western Ohio wedding location debate and we had convinced my food-suspicious Midwestern clan a vegetarian dinner was perfectly edible, we’d get married, without bustles or tulle.
We may still hold that wedding, but only when we’re in our thirties and most of our friends have already taken the gift registry plunge.
As it was, our wedding was carefully aromantic and our marriage is informal, as I compulsively remind everyone, from my mother to my ex-boyfriends. I beat all the dreamy excesses out of our vows, made our wedding as studiously slapdash as it could possibly be, and assured anyone who found out about our covert hitching that we weren’t really that type of people.
I’m as likely to call him my boyfriend -- or comrade, life partner, or kitten baby daddy -- as I am to call him my husband. I’m his “partner,” or a series of embarrassing zoological nicknames. We swore to our friends that this was an open relationship, even though we’re attached at the hip and operate so much like a two-person hive mind we’ve been given a celebrity-couple portmanteau.
“We’re not really married,” we laugh -- a coded plea to still be invited to house parties and abandoned building raves and not be abandoned by our swinging single friends.
“You can still do drugs around us!”
As we stagger after our single friends, frantic to not be forgotten, I increasingly find myself paraphrasing Amy Poehler’s desperate Mean Girls mom: We’re not a regular married couple. We’re a cool married couple!
I love that silly boy I hurriedly married and we’re in it forever, even if we’re not entirely sure we want to be the only people each other fucks ever again. But I still recoil from labeling our relationship a marriage.
Marriage to me is a hangdog word of household drudgery and sexual captivity or the first chapter of divorce. It is also supposedly sacred to conservatives and all things the right wing holds holy -- school prayer, sexual ignorance, tyranny over ovaries -- I don’t want anything to do with it. That notion of marriage is far too serious, weighing down relationships with a religious and legal burden of “specialness.”
Young marriage in particular seems like an excess, a relic of a time when you only lived and boned together because you had a sainted paper slip. What’s the point of all that legal fire-hoop jumping and religious ruckus when you can be together without it?
My marriage certificate is a frivolous decoration over a wide and wonderful love, necessary only because border agencies say it is. Maybe we need a new definition of marriage. Maybe we need to reclaim it from the sanctimonious right and our divorced and depressed parents and all the happily ever afters and recast it as something new.
This new marriage should be open, informal, and breathable, an institution that isn’t suffocating or particularly sanctified, where you make your own rules about monogamy and children and eternity. Then I’d be glad to own it at any age.